Last week Turkish prosecutors started another witch hunt after academics signed a declaration criticising military action in the mainly Kurdish south-east region. Yesterday a Turkish teacher was gaoled for a year for making an ‘obscene’ hand gesture as Mr. Erdogan’s cavalcade passed by on a campaign rally. It is an offence under Turkish law to be ‘rude’ to the head of state, a legacy of the cult of Atatürk. Nowadays, under Erdogan, it is risky NOT to be rude about Atatürk.
Mr. Erdogan is democratically elected, but won last year’s Presidential election narrowly avoiding a second round run-off. He said of the lower than expected victory margin: ‘there were those who didn’t like the Prophet. I, however, won 52 per cent.’ Some attribute his falling popularity to the disastrous consequences of Turkey’s Syria policy, others to the withdrawal of support from the ‘shadow state’ followers of Fetullah Gülen. Economic slowdown and rising corruption aren’t helping, but the simple answer may be that the AKP Party, never particularly democratic, has lost its populist appeal as President Erdogan changed the constitution and has emerged as Great Dictator, with all the trappings of a Middle Eastern Potentate.
In austere times, Mr. Erdogan has built a $615 mn, 1000 room presidential palace, on the grounds that there were cockroaches in his old offices. It is alleged that he may have presided over personal and corporate corruption on an epic scale, that Turkey’s elections were fixed and that the country actively and passively supports Daesh/ISIL and various Sunni Jihadist allies, partly by buying stolen Syrian and Iraqi oil at knock down prices. Relations with Russia are arctic and the US are concerned about Turkey’s totalitarian drift. On virtually every measure, President Erdogan is setting new (low) standards of Authoritarianism. Until the Daesh/ISIL controversies, the international media were largely indifferent to creeping Totalitarianism, human rights abuses and imposition of State Islam on a former secular democracy. Now Turkey’s Southern borders are the fault line where various Middle East religious and territorial conflicts spread beyond the region. Turkey is fanning the flames by escalating its war to stop the formation of a Kurdish state while the EU is offering EUR 3 billion to help it stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of Syrian war refugees, which, to its credit, Turkey has attempted to accomodate.
Erdogan took the credit for Turkey’s decade of strong growth. Now the economic tide has turned he is running short of good news, oligarch, military and media support. The lack of a strong CHP leader and the fact that most of the Kemalist military are in prison or in exile keep the AKP Party in power, but have led to overreaching on a scale which places Turkey in danger of becoming a pariah state at a time when the region crucially needs a pivotal stable democracy. His persecution of old school CHP supporting conglomerates which account for more than 20 per cent of Turkey’s GDP, principally Koç and Sabançi, would have been popular amongst disaffected youth 15 years ago. But after the 2013 Gezi Park protests, when Koç, owners of the Divan Hotel in Taksim Square opened the hotel to wounded demonstrators after peaceful protests were violently crushed by security forces, Kemalism is beginning to look (almost) radically chic. This is not a good thing: Turkey was at best a ‘managed’ democracy underpinned by a brutal military, but now it’s a police state stripped of the fig leaf of democracy. Erdogan’s (favourable!) comparison of the new Turkish Constitution to Hitler’s Germany puts the transformation into perspective.
Conspiracists and moderate commentators alike have attributed the progressively bizarre utterances of ‘Sultan’ Erdogan to ill health, prescription drugs and even shock at his mother’s recent death. He had treatment for colon cancer in 2013, but looks fit. The mental illness rumour was promoted by the Israeli media, where he is routinely portrayed as enemy number one. Turkey and Israel used to be allies, swapping torture tips, tasers and containment strategies until Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was met with universal condemnation in the Arab world. The 2010 Mavi Marmara massacre of 19 Turkish civilians on a ship bringing aid to Gaza led to Erdogan walking off stage during talks with Israel’s Nethanyahu at Davos. Erdogan’s expedient anti Zionism goes a long way in Turkey and in the Middle East. Accused of anti Semitism for blaming the Arab Spring, rise of Daesh/ISIS, Islamophobia, oil prices, Syria, Iraq and just about everything on Zionism, he rejected the anti Semitic slur but reiterated the Zionist claims, adding that Nethanyahu’s Israel was little better than Nazi Germany. Notwithstanding, Turkey being Turkey, conspiracists claim that Erdogan, a devout, if not fanatical Sunni Muslim, is secretly a Jew. Some say Israel and Turkey have reconciled behind the scenes: Turkey is buying Israeli natural gas, for example, but Erdogan’s support for Hamas and Gaza is a serious obstacle, to say the least.
Erdogan’s ambitions to lead the EU’s least European and most Islamic state were dealt a blow after the EU complained that Turkey was dragging its feet on human rights. After Bulgaria and Romania were granted accession he recalibrated, looked East and directed his efforts towards becoming Caliph of a new Ottoman Empire. His support of Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood enraged Israel, alarmed the US but garnered support amongst Sunni fellow travellers. A democratic secular(ish) Muslim state seemed like a good model until the Potentate Club worked out that Turkey was neither secular, nor democratic and that it intended to be Boss of Them All with a presidential system modelled on Nazi Germany.
Under Erdogan and former President Gül, supported by Fetullah Gülen’s populist Islamic movement, Turkey segued from Kemalist secularism into semi-moderate Islamism. Erdogan split with the Gülenites as he moved further in the direction of hardline political Islam. Gülen, a conservative Sunni himself, was working towards a soft power theocracy and took a dim view of Erdogan’s alleged corruption. The 2014 Iranian money laundering scandal sent the Gülenite media into a flat spin, culminating in government raids last year. Erdogan professes he was dismayed and amazed to discover that Fethullah’s Softies had permeated every nook and cranny of the corridors of power, from the police through judiciary to government and the military, and had a stranglehold on the media. His surprise is the more remarkable since it was an open secret: most insiders knew that this was the source of his popular support, especially in Anatolia. He also claimed to be unaware that Gülen may have been sponsored by the CIA, despite the fact that the shadowy old Imam lived in luxurious exile in the US, had a network of coast to coast madrassas and, despite his international obscurity, was named by Foreign Policy and Prospect Magazine as Public Intellectual of the Year, beating Noam Chomsky by an improbably massive margin after his followers allegedly rigged the Internet poll. (As Publisher at the time, I saw the votes and am convinced that sophisticated hacking/robot voting took place). At any rate, the split with Gülen marked a step change in the radicalisation of Erdogan. Less than three years later, Turkey is a Presidential dictatorship, close to war with Russia.
Erdogan’s support for Daesh/ISIL may have been founded on the ‘enemy’s enemy is my friend’ principle. The Peshmerga Kurds in Iraq and Syria are fighting for their lives against ISIL. Turkey has fought a generational civil war on its south eastern front against PKK Kurdish separatists, interspersed with general Kurd-bashing. If Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, now supported by the US, triumph against ISIL/Daesh and create a de facto Kurdish state there will be a route for Iraqi oil through to the Mediterranean. ISIL is hell bent on bashing Shias and other minorities, which suits Turkey and other regional Sunni Islam expedient allies. Thus Russia and others allege that Turkey has funded ISIL by buying oil, stolen from captured oil fields in Iraq and Syria, at knock down prices while turning a blind eye to the traffic of weapons and people across its borders with Syria.
The downing of a Russian SU-24 warplane by Turkish F16s last November, shortly after Russia had entered the Syrian conflict on Assad’s side has put Turkey on the spot. Russia’s shock and awe tactics of bombing civilian populations in ISIS and rebel held territories are as abhorrent as the US carpet bombing of the past 18 months has been mysteriously ineffective. But few in Turkey relish the prospect of war with Russia, and it is doubtful whether NATO would support Turkey if it escalates tensions further. The Neo Ottoman Caliphate idea has fallen flat too: Erdogan is turning out to be more Selim the Grim than Salman the Wise.
It doesn’t take an academic petition to work out that escalating conflicts on the Syrian border risks dragging Turkey and NATO into a confrontation with Russia that holds Armageddon implications. Erdogan tried for several years to involve Turkey in the Syrian civil war, partly to persecute Kurds and partly to make a start on building his caliphate. It was and is a hopelessly flawed and deeply inhumane adventure, fraught with danger to Turkey and the region. But in Erdogan’s Turkey, academics, journalists, Armenians, gays and anyone else who even voices this opinion is a treasonous PKK sympathiser. This is a grotesque trivialisation. If Turkey’s southern border crises and the escalating spat with Russia continue, the Kurds will be the least of all our problems. For this reason alone, let’s hope he gets well soon.